LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! Big Themes, “Party Down” Style

LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! Big Themes, “Party Down” Style

LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! is a series of pieces looking at what fiction writers can borrow, craftily, from other sources. I will mostly look at television, movies, and comics, though the occasional literary work may sneak its way in, as will a song or two. LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! finds useful inspiration in unlikely places. NOTE: In all LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! posts, there will be spoilers. Can’t pick it apart if you can’t get specific.

Party Down was a half-hour comedy that ran for two-seasons from 2009-10 on the Starz network, which is only called Starz because no one could agree on an edgy-seeming spelling for Garbage. (Garbij? Garrbage?) I’ve now seen Party Down‘s 20-episode run in its entirety three times: First when it aired on Starz, then in a weeklong fury as it was about to expire from Netflix streaming, and now with my fourteen-year-old son. (It’s okay, though: he’s really fourteen-and-a-half.)

What’s It About?

Party Down is ostensibly the story of Henry Pollard (Adam Scott), a failed actor who peaked in a series of beer ads (his big catch phrase — “Are we having FUN yet?” — gets thrown back at him again and again throughout Party Down‘s two seasons) and now returns to his old job at Party Down, a Los Angeles-area catering company, with nothing left of his acting career but the creaky BMW he bought while surely thinking there was more residuals money just around the corner. And that’s one of the things Party Down is so good at: the little details. By leaving most of the characters’ histories offscreen — and, in fact, we never see where any of them lives — it makes the viewer do some of the work, and it’s always richer for it. Henry, as with all the Party Down characters, is made, in part, by our imagination. Contrast this with the cacophony of Big Bang Theory, or even the wall-to-wall comedy diorama that is Arrested Development.

This, by the way, is why certain shows become part of their viewers’ lives, where others are fine and well-made but ultimately just kind of exist in a vacuum. We’re invested. Party Down, The Venture Bros., ArcherEnlightened, Parks and Recreation — these are comedies, and comedies are just supposed to distract us, to entertain and move on; yet these shows stick with us. Their characters aren’t necessarily all people we’d want to know in real life, but we have no choice: We do know them.

So Henry’s the main figure in Party Down. He comes back to work, starts and loses a romance with his co-worker Casey (an ambitious actor/comedian), gets promoted to team leader (when team leader Ron Donald leaves for his dream job of running a Soup ‘R Crackers franchise), dates his weird, terrifying boss. Throughout, Henry wrestles over and over with an issue: whether you can really opt out of trying, or if you’ve got a duty to your talent, regardless of how many setbacks you’ve had. The way Henry wrestles with this issue is by alternately sneering at it and denying it. When super-producer Leonard Stiltskin tells Henry “You’ll never work in this town again,” Henry’s baffled response is: “I know.”

You Said Henry Is “Ostensibly” the Hero…

Right: if Henry’s the sour, guarded head of the show, Ron Donald is the sad, fragile heart.

ron donald

For me, there’s been no better “sad” character on television than Ron Donald, played by the amazing Ken Marino. Marino often shows up as the alpha-male dickhead character in movies like Role Models and Wanderlust (both of which he also co-wrote), and on shows like The League and Eastbound & Down. But Ron Donald is very different. He’s a guy who wishes he were one of those alpha-dickheads, but is simply missing whatever it takes — the iciness? The bro gene? — to be one of those guys. To my mind, Ron Donald is the best thing Marino’s done so far. And together, Ron and Henry form an amazing example of how to sneak sadness into something funny without bringing everything, well, down.

It’s no accident that Ron’s the very first character we meet in Party Down. The first time we see him, he’s full of pride and excitement as he talks up Party Down’s competence to the camera. (Which is revealed to be the POV of a less-than-interested client.) In that moment Ron carelessly, offhandedly reveals something about his past. You can see this in the first 20 seconds of the series-premiere trailer:

That past, though — in a minute he’ll also remind Henry of how they used to get high at work together, forever ago, at this very job — is inescapable for Ron. In Los Angeles, a place known for sometimes aggressive forms of reinvention, Ron remains incapable of escaping who he is — at least through the means he’s chosen: wearing an earnest wiffle cut, toadying up to his clients, listening to every motivational speaker who comes along, and being dead certain that if you only believe hard enough, your dreams will come true. But from the very first moment we see Ron, we see the cracks.

If all this sounds impossible to make funny, then you’ve just learned why Party Down is so beloved by its tiny audience: It’s hilarious and it’s about something. But really, it’s hilarious because it’s about something.

Things go bad for Ron after he falls apart while catering his own 20-year high school reunion. (Which, in true Ron Donald style, he’d thought would impress the hell out of his classmates.) In the season one finale, Ron, drunk in the Party Down van, whispers to Henry: “Can you look me in the eye, and can you promise me that it all means something?” We never see Henry’s response, but by virtue of the fact that Ron gets out of the van, we know Henry’s told him that of course, Ron, it all means something. But no way do we believe that Henry means a word he’s said. This is a guy who’s just told everyone he’s moving back home with his parents.

But for Ron it’s like a magic incantation, and moments later, he (drunkenly) stumbles into the chance to run his own Soup ‘R Crackers — literally, his dream. Henry, in turn, is offered Ron’s job as Team Leader. The universe is offering Henry the opportunity to try. Will he do it?

It turns out he does, and with some real seriousness. Season Two picks up nine months later, and Henry’s the boss, he’s dating his boss, Uda, he’s enjoying company healthcare, and he’s even moved into a bigger apartment. (“With a view of a Taco Bell.”) Henry, it turns out, is even better at being Ron than Ron was.

When we catch up with Ron, meanwhile, his dream’s become a nightmare. Soup ‘R Crackers went bust, and all he has now is a car he can’t afford and a disconcertingly young girlfriend who’s already figured out he’s a loser. Soup ‘R Crackers went down because it was a bad business idea in a bad economy, but Ron is still mystified. “I don’t understand,” he sputters. “I did everything I was supposed to.”

In season two, he slides back into his old form as a lazy burner, because why try. “I’m being you,” he sneers at Henry. Meanwhile, all this raises more questions: Is it enough to try in a general sense? Don’t you need to try for what matters? Henry’s dream isn’t to be the boss at a catering company. And as we soon learn, buried under all the artifice of Henry there’s still someone who likes acting.

Jesus, Already. So what Can We Steal From This Show?

Fine. What Party Down does so well is incorporate a few overarching themes into its episodic structure. If the question with Henry is “can you ever really quit something?”, Ron’s question is “can you really become a different person?” Which, by the way, are two forms of the same question. If a creative art is an extension of the self, Henry’s question strips down to become the same as Ron’s: “Can you really stop being you?”

Party Down is obsessed with versions of this: Casey’s pursuing a career as a comedian and actor; dim, handsome Kyle’s doesn’t want to be an actor, he wants to be a star, so much so that he’s already planned out the progression of his three future marriages; rage-filled Roman’s forever writing science fiction screenplays (“hard sci-fi,” he spits), but mostly what he does is piss on everyone else’s work; Constance is a weird, aging bit-player who keeps herself shielded in the world’s thickest denial-bubble; Lydia is a stage-mom with a horrible-sounding daughter she’s named Escapade. For all its questions and versions of questions, Party Down has one central concern: If I’m not being true to myself, what am I doing here? Even most of the Party Down clients and guests seem to be wrestling with some version of this question.

So Party Down asks questions, which would seem like some crazy shit for a sitcom to do. But Lorrie Moore has said that short stories are there to ask questions, while novels should ask questions and then attempt to answer them. Party Down, which is in totality a remarkably novelistic TV show, does this beautifully in the late innings of its second and final season. Casey’s won a part in a Judd Apatow movie! Her years of trying and auditioning have paid off! But in an excruciating scene late in the last episode — Constance’s wedding to a rich old producer — Casey tells Henry her scene’s been cut; she’s back to nothing. Is she ever going to make it? When he offers words of encouragement — in other words, the same lie he told Ron in the van — she simply can’t buy it from him. “Maybe if we were the same kind of crazy,” she says, “but we’re not. Because if you aren’t crazy enough to believe it for you than how are you gonna believe it for me?”

Our final glimpse of Henry, and of Party Down, is the Monday after Constance’s wedding. The rest of the crew’s at a catering event and Ron’s subbing for Henry as team leader. Casey asks where he is. Kyle says, offhandedly, “He said he had to go do something.” We see the recognition creeping into Casey’s face, followed just behind by a smile. Cut to: Henry in the waiting room at a casting session, nervously studying a script. A woman comes out and calls him in to read. He hesitates, then goes in. End of show.

And the questions are answered. Is it worth it? Should you even keep trying to make it? There’s no “worth it” or not, there’s no “making it” or not; you just keep trying, regardless, because you love it. Can you change who you were? Maybe stop trying to change who you are. (Turns out, the real Ron Donald was the one being Party Down team leader, period, not the one so anxious to move past that.) It’s ballsy enough for a show to so nakedly ask these questions. It’s even ballsier to answer them, and to answer them with optimism.

A lot of great stories, you’ll notice, ask questions. Not just the “what if” questions of old-timey sci-fi or Adam Sandler movies — those are really just premises — but questions like “Can you be an effective mob boss if you’re a sensitive person prone to anxiety attacks?” (The Sopranos and/or Analyze This) or “Can you ever hold on to power if it’s gained through murder and lies?” (Macbeth and/or Breaking Bad) or “Can a person really change who they are?” (Party Down, The Sopranos again, Enlightened, The Great Gatsby, A Christmas Carol). In other words: they got themes.

The Sopranos is a great example of the difference between a premise and a theme. What if a mob boss started seeing a psychiatrist? is a premise. And it’s fine, but if you just stick with that, you get, at best, Analyze This. But David Chase was a writer interested in something deeper than premise, and he had more questions. These became the dominating themes of The Sopranos:

  • Can you be a ruthless criminal and a person who wants to change?
  • Can people even really change?
  • If you don’t commit crimes but enjoy the benefits of crimes, are you any better than the criminal?
  • When is enough (money, power, killing, mayhem) enough?

The thing I notice as I write these is that they sound a lot like the questions we ask ourselves in daily life. And I think that’s why these things work on us when premises alone, frankly, are hit-and-miss. I may not give a shit about your premise if you haven’t also done the work of asking questions that map out the shared space between your story and life on Earth.

Eastbound & Down is a perfect example. “Washed-up bad-boy pitcher moves back home and takes a job as a middle-school gym teacher” is the premise. I will watch that for two minutes, but then I’m going to want more. And Eastbound, in its first season, delivered. I think I soured on Eastbound & Down when it stopped asking questions about Kenny Powers and decided it was just going to stick him in a bunch of unlikely situations and watch the krazy sparks fly.

So how do I find my themes?

Ask yourself: What are the questions in the story you’re telling? Not what’s the answer, but what are the mysteries? A lot of us start with the takeaway — “PEOPLE WHO HAVE A LOT OF RANDOM HOOK-UPS REALLY JUST NEED TO FIND A SELFLESS SCHOOLTEACHER-TYPE” — and this is a mistake. The takeaway is an answer, and if that’s all you’ve got your audience will feel you writing toward that, stacking the events in your favor like a bad scientist skewing the evidence to fit the results he wants. Knowing all the answers ahead of time is great if you’re writing a murder mystery, but for everything else, I think one of the things the audience loves is to feel when the writer is surprised. Not that you’re ever presenting first drafts, but we all know those moments in writing where inspiration has taken over, or a surprise idea or solution has presented itself. The work feels alive.

Start with a question and your story has room to breathe. You have room to discover things. Your reader will feel your curiosity, and curiosity always feels like life, like the act of being alive and engaged. (Because that is who we are: we’re on a rock, possibly alone in a massive, seemingly infinite universe; we’re going to ask questions about this, as we have for thousands of years already.)

Look back to Gravity, which was not asking “What if someone got stranded in space?” so much as, “What would it be like to be stranded in space?” The difference in wording seems tiny, but it’s all the difference in the world in terms of how that story is told. There’s a sense of wonder and fear in the spaces between all the suspenseful events in Gravity, and you can feel it all the way in the back row at the multiplex. If it had been merely a “what if?” movie, it would still have been visually exciting but emotionally dead.

I’m sure it’s no accident that Party Down‘s obsessions with trying and what it means to “make it” can also double as any creative person’s own obsessions. And that’s part of what I find so continually rewarding about the show: With most of its characters finding a sense of purpose and self-acceptance, it makes for a hell of a pep talk.

P.S. For years, there have been rumors of a Party Down movie, and if this ever really happens, I will go to 12 Monkeys-like lengths to stop it. A show ends in the most satisfying way imaginable, and what do we do? We ask for more. We are such greedy weirdos.

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